What does it mean to change yourself?

happy kid play superhero , boy power conceptIf we want to change the world, then we must practice on ourselves first. How? Well, the most basic way is by breaking a bad habit. If we succeed on making this small step, then we will have gained the experience and the capacity to effect true change in a world beleaguered by various social issues.

Today, I would like to talk about the first of Gandhi’s fundamentals for changing the world: changing yourself. What exactly does it mean?

We have discussed yesterday how humans have evolved the capacity to change nature, as well as the various examples of the changes we have effected since our early existence. We have also discussed how this capacity must be directed to further nature, and in order for our species to succeed. We have also explored how, unlike the animals, human beings evolved for a much greater purpose than to survive, and that there is a need for our species to be in conversation with nature in order for us to discover the ultimate aim and purpose of our existence.

While we have gained the capacity for change, it must be said that much of the changes we have done in nature and even in our daily lives have created unintended consequences. Not all of these unintended consequences are bad, however, because they are unintended, we have failed to take advantage of opportunities, or have failed to anticipate possible concerns, which in many respects lead to wasted resources. Perhaps this is the reason why managing change has become an important preoccupation in our modern world.

Change management, though typically applied in business, is anchored on the belief that organizations do not change, people do. It is a science in itself and requires an in-depth understanding of what change is. If one hopes to make a sustainable and permanent change, either in the individual or group level, then this is the place to start.

Defining Change

The dictionary defines change this way: “to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone; to transform or convert; to substitute another or others for; exchange for something else”.

From these official definitions of change, we can infer three things. First is that change is a process, and not a one-shot deal. Second, is that the visible aspect of change, such as a difference in appearance or behaviour is just a small part. Third, the process of change involves substitution, conversion and transformation.

Change as a process

One of the biggest mistakes we make when we choose to break a bad habit is that we expect immediate results. Just because you decided to start coming to work early, or to stop smoking, it doesn’t mean that you will be able to do so every single day. Habits are automatic behaviors – in the same way that they take time to build, they also take time to change.

According to Wendy Wood, “Habits emerge through associative learning. We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and responses”. It is about following the same behavioural and neurological patterns often enough so that your brain, in its attempt to save on energy, creates an automatic behavioural response. Hence, to change a habit, you need more than will power. You need to understand, first, what the habit is, why it began in the first place, as well as the benefit you are getting from such a habit.

From this discussion we gain an important piece of insight: in order to change yourself, you need to know who you are. And in order for you to learn who you are, you need a great deal of education.

A Shift in Behavior and Appearance is Just a Small Part of the Process

How many times have you achieved a change in your habit, only to fall back again? According to Psychologist Josh King, built into the idea of change is the concept of relapse (when people return to the old behaviour).

More than the fact that habits are in-grained, there is also the factor that people take on changes in different pace. Some decide to change and never look back. Others change slowly over time, opting to make smaller, simpler changes first, with each change leading them closer towards the larger goals. Some change once, relapse, make small adjustments, change again. Others decide to change, relapse, relapse even further, before finally making the switch. We must learn that change comes in stages, and that every individual goes through each stage at their own time. By understanding this, one can gain greater patience with the process they are undergoing.

Psychologists James Prochaska, John Norcross and Carlo DiClemente have developed a theory summarizing the different stages of change:

  • Precontemplation: individuals feel the pressure for change, but have no intention for it, nor are they aware of the outcome they desire
  • Contemplation: individuals become aware of the problem, but are clueless as to how to begin the change. This is the stage when people are overwhelmed with the kind of change being asked for, and are often, unable to make real changes because of this.
  • Preparation: individuals are prepared to make the leap, but are not fully decided on what their goals are, and how they will accomplish such goals.
  • Action: this is the stage where individuals begin to make changes in their life. Sometimes, such changes lead to a feeling of hopefulness and satisfaction. Many times, it can lead to frustrations because many times, you will encounter the many things you don’t like about yourself and will be required to re-assess why you are doing what you are doing.
  • Maintenance: In this stage, individuals must work to prevent themselves from reverting to old behaviors and to maintain the gains they have achieved in the action phase. This is not the “completed” phase, but rather, the beginning of another process. It still involves a great deal of effort, dedication, time and energy.

Change as a process of substitution, conversion and transformation

Needless to say, change is difficult, but it is not impossible. How then should one go about change? For that Socrates has the best advise to give: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Buckminster Fuller restated these words in a more practical way. He said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change reality, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”. This is exactly what the science of change is discovering.

In an article written for Psychology Today by Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl he said,

From my early studies of animal behaviour and learning…I know that habits are partially an issue of reinforcement and repetition of behaviour in response to a stimulus. However, there’s more to human goal pursuit and habit formation than that, as we also have to remember previous intentions to act. This prospective memory of previous intentions, the commitment to the intention (motivation), and linking new behaviors to existing routines are all important factors in establishing new habits.

In lay man’s terms, Dr. Pychyl is saying: if you want to change a habit, know why you want to make the shift, and choose a new habit to build to replace the old one you don’t like. That is the part of change that is all about substitution and conversion.

Today, we define change very different from transformation. Whereas the former is small and incremental, the latter is large and significant. Transformation creates a future that does not reference the past for a future result, whereas change is all about creating an improved version of the past. This is how we define these two terms, but really in today’s unpredictable world, no change is a small change. All changes have to be transformational if we are to keep up with the recent developments in various knowledge areas.

Based on the findings of psychology, creating change without referencing the past will almost always lead to failure. You cannot simply remove a habit without replacing it with something new that serves your purpose. Some may succeed by sheer luck, but this will require a great deal of effort (not to mention pain and exclusion).

However, I wish to emphasize this important point: change is not just a substitution, but a transformation of behaviours. Substitution is a starting point, but in order for the change to be permanent, it must have the element of transformation. Transformation requires understanding the interconnections and bringing the behaviors to a whole new level. If tardiness can be changed by waking up earlier so that you can come to work early, it can be transformed into coming to work early, with no backlogs and prepared to make your presentation for the marketing conference. Transformation is all about reinventing yourself and that would require more risk. If change is already painful, transformation is excruciating. But it is this kind of change that is needed in order to change the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? Breaking a habit is the beginning because it means that you can overcome your own biology and childhood programming. Once you have overcome your biology and programs, then the next step is to create something new, often something that is beyond what biology and the program has to offer. We’ve done this many times, haven’t we? We’ve made airplanes, ships, and now, artificial intelligence. We’ve gone beyond what biology has to offer.

The difference with the kind of change that Gandhi is referring to is that, now the change that needs to happen is internal – it has to come from inside every individual that wishes for a better world. There is no external tool or technology that one can develop to make this easy. The only help we can get from science now is the understanding of how such change can be done based on how our own bodies and minds are already functioning.

About this Series

The Scientific Bases of Gandhi’s Fundamentals for Changing the World Series

While researching for a previous article, I came across this wonderful article by Henrik Edberg which related the Top 10 Fundamentals for Changing the World according to Mahatma Gandhi. To summarize, these ten are:

  1. Change yourself.
  2. You are in control.
  3. Forgive and let it go.
  4. Without action you aren’t going anywhere.
  5. Take care of this moment.
  6. Everyone is human.
  7. See the good in people and help them.
  8. Be congruent, authentic, be your true self.
  9. Continue to grow and evolve.

I really like the way Edberg wrote his article, and have decided to make it a basis for the series I will entitle The Scientific Bases of Gandhi’s Fundamentals for Changing the World.

 This is article 1 of this series. Articles for this series will be released every Saturday.


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